From PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" to A&E's "Storage Wars," reality TV has capitalized on our fascination with discovering treasure in household junk.
It happened to historian Michael Mendoza, whose patient culling through boxes of old papers was rewarded when he found a Civil War veteran's personal account of his experiences. The 17-page letter was so rich in detail, Mendoza (www.dentedcanenterprises.com) used it as the basis of his first novel, "Glorious Reality of War."
Mendoza owned an antiques store in 1997 when 95-year-old Alice Bowersock died in San Diego, Calif., he says. He acquired her estate: furniture, knickknacks, and stacks of boxes full of photographs, insurance policies and letters.
Most people, Mendoza notes, might trash the papers right off the bat.
"Don't," he says. "Toss or sell the knickknacks, and keep the paper. It can be invaluable."
Collectors value ephemera because such paper records are unique and irreplaceable, he says, so he pored through the boxes page by page, finding birth and death records, paintings and prints, old books.
"And then I saw the letter a documented firsthand experience of the Civil War. It was written in 1925, typed on 8?-by-14-inch paper," Mendoza says. "Reading it, I got a real good sense of who (the writer) was."
Charles Wesley Rickard was 64 when he wrote the letter to his daughter, Alice, who had asked him to write about his war experience.
He was a 15-year-old Iowa farm boy, he wrote, when "a great desire came over me to go to the war. My parents were loathe to give their consent, and so I made life miserable for them until they finally gave in."
In 1862, he enlisted as a Union fifer because he was too young to serve as a private. "I had never seen a fife before," Rickard wrote. "But I could use a rifle, and I was bound to go as something." When the fighting began, he was in the thick of it.
Three years later and all of 18 years old, he remembers noting how very young the new replacement troops looked.
Mendoza kept Rickard's letter and sold off some of the memorabilia.
"I knew the value was more in presenting it as a historical fiction novel," he says.
Finding inspiration for a novel may not equate to striking it rich for everyone, but people willing to invest time in sorting through old family papers stand to profit, Mendoza says.
"Many things are valuable on their own, like first editions of classic books," he says. "But don't forget the family records. Even if you're not into genealogy, you should save those, because once you throw them away, they're lost to the next generation."
Mendoza offers these tips for dealing with old paperwork:
Don't throw it away simply because it's damaged. Mendoza found a first-edition copy of "Gone with the Wind" that was so waterlogged, it was destroyed. "I sold it for $80," he says, "and that was cheap."
Put together items on the same topic to improve chances of selling to collectors. Collectors like to buy in lots, Mendoza notes. They'd rather have a whole bunch of things than just one. Among Alice Bowersock's belongings, Mendoza found photographs and documents from her father's time helping to build the Panama Canal. Mendoza pulled all the canal material together and sold it to a collector.
Store papers in an open zipper bag in a dry place. If the paper is very valuable, invest in bags designed for that purpose. Otherwise, zipper baggies from the grocery store do fine. Don't seal them, though, because if there's no air circulation, the paper might stick to the plastic.
Digitize everything. Scanning your documents and photographs allows you to study them without damaging them.
For the record Mendoza is still going through Alice Bowersock's boxes.
About Michael Mendoza
Michael Mendoza holds a master's degree in American history and is an adjunct instructor for Central Texas College. He lives in Santee, Calif., and plans a sequel to "Glorious Reality of War."